Holy smokes, growing things is a lot of hard work! I think I am afflicted with seasonal amnesia. Each winter I completely forget how much work goes into this crazy business as I while away the cold winter days contented in my studio. The hours and hours—who am I kidding?— the days and days of sweaty, backbreaking work melt away as I reference photos for paintings, seeing only the gorgeous colors and textures that are the fruits of our labor. Instead of remembering long days in the field or hours processing a never-ending supply of perennials, I am captivated by the colors in the photos before me. As the snow swirls and the world outside turns white I am lost for days painting the lush colors of a simple golden iris—marveling in the depth of values and subtle changes of hue.
Actually I know that I am always painting even when I don’t have a brush in my hand. Ralph cuts circles around me as I get bogged down imagining this flower with that flower—designing in my head. And I prefer to process flowers alone so that he doesn’t know how often I get lost mentally mixing yet another incredible color. I am dazzled by color and fascinated with the effects of different color combinations.
To understand what happens when colors are combined we need to understand about color families. Just as a refresher: every color we see is a combination of the three primary colors—red, yellow and blue. Mixing equal amounts of two primary colors results in the secondary colors—orange, green and violet. Combining equal amounts of a primary and a secondary color create tertiary colors—red orange, yellow orange, orange yellow and so on around the wheel.
Drawing a line between the red and green, dividing the color wheel in half, creates two more color families—warm and cool. Any color made with red, orange or yellow or any combination of these colors is considered a warm color. Colors made with combinations of green, blue and violet are called cool colors. These color families create a feeling of temperature and mood. Have you ever wondered why it is hard to sell “hot” colors, like strong reds in the spring? It is because softer, cooler colors evoke the spirit of spring—lime greens, soft yellows, lavenders and pinks. As the weather begins to heat up so does the color palette and the demand for eye-popping reds, oranges and bold blues. The weather peaks and as soon as we feel the first frost, everything rust, orange, brown or purple is selling. Deep, rich colors fill the fall palette as we gorge on color before winter comes and the world becomes a monochromatic painting of cool greens, steely blues, whites, silvers and grays.
Pick up any home décor or fashion magazine and you will notice strong color themes that follow “seasonal” color combinations. Tear off the dates printed on any Martha Stewart magazine and I am sure you can still put them in chronological order. Color equals temperature, color conveys mood.
To illustrate color temperatures let’s examine two different arrangements. Using the same fuchsia-colored peony as a major player in each design but combining it with flowers keyed to opposite sides of the temperature scale I can create two completely different moods. The combination of soft fresh colors, collected in a cool green vase, evoke springtime because I have simply copied nature. The first colors to emerge in the springtime are the cool yellow-greens and vibrant lime greens of new leaves and tender shoots, and the pinks and lavenders of blossoming trees. Pairing “hot” pink peonies with cool shades of green, blue and yellow “cooled” with a little green, frames the peonies, making them pop but also lowering their temperature. The color fuchsia is a combination of red and blue so the cool blue in the lavender bells echoes the blue in the peonies, further softening their temperature.
I have pushed the second bouquet in the opposite direction, creating a sense of sun, heat and excitement. The red in the fuchsia peonies is echoed in the orange lilies, primary red coral bells and the fire engine red vase. The blue of the salvia is just a shade off primary blue—created by adding a touch of red. The leaves are even a “warm” green, a perfect secondary green combination tinged with just a touch of red. The cooling blue tones in the peonies and salvia set the reds and oranges on fire—orange and blue being opposites on the color wheel visually vibrate when set by one another. Grounded in hot elemental colors this bouquet is essential, vibrant and lush, definitely not for the faint-hearted.
In writing this article I have come to the conclusion that my seasonal amnesia has developed as a defense mechanism. During the long, dark, cold months I survive reliving the colors of summer in my studio. And I definitely get through the madness of the growing season dreaming of long days of painting.